In the muggy heat of the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He spoke of his dream for a future where children of all races could walk together and “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. This speech, this man, and this movement are all iconic pieces of American History.
It is within this context that it becomes even more interesting to note that it was in the year preceeding that, 1962, that the first full-color children’s book featuring a Black child as the main character was released.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats tells the story of a boy enjoying the magic of a city blanketed in snow. The story itself is simple. But the artistic quality of the book is timeless and its message in that time period is profound.
The book isn’t a message book per se. It isn’t a book about what it means to be Black. It’s simply about what it means to be a child on a snowy day. That’s what makes it so poignant amid the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. To me, that communicates more clearly than any overt message book could, the equality of man. Nothing illustrates life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness like a child wrapped in his favorite snowsuit, exploring the wonder of snow.
It’s been 50 years since that groundbreaking release, and while Ezra Jack Keats produced several other wonderful books featuring Peter, just being Peter, it seems that we could still use more diverse characters in children’s picture books. Not just in books on the topic of diversity, but in books about the simple, common experiences of childhood.
As I’ve mentioned before, I want my own boys to see characters in books that remind them of themselves, with big blue eyes and even bigger personalities. But I also want them to read books where they can look into the green, black, and brown eyes that remind them of their friends. All children deserve to be able to see themselves in a good book, and to see the rest of the world there as well.
When I try to think of a contemporary book with qualities similar to The Snowy Day, I think first of Please, Puppy, Please by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. The illustrations, by Kadir Nelson, are bright, bold, and beautiful. And the story itself is pure. Just two children and their new, mischevious puppy. The text is simple and lyrical. It’s certainly a favorite at our house!
So what are some of your favorite children’s books that show the diversity of children simply being children? I’d love to add to our library!
Check out this interesting article about the anniversary of The Snowy Day from the Washington Post, with a hat tip to my friend Zina of Lasso the Moon for sharing it on Facebook.
And if you want to add to your library as well, take a look at these storytime books featuring Black characters from Amazon.